Editor’s note: This is the eleventh essay in a 12-part Father’s Day series entitled, Honoring Fathers Who Serve. In May, we asked readers to submit essays about the men who have served our country.
The Wheelock Family, circa 1959.
One of my first memories of you is of me running across the front lawn as you walked home from work and jumping into your arms. I was about three years old and you would swing me around and around, making me squeal with delight. This was a daily occurrence as you worked on a dairy farm and there were five of us kids, all racing to you for our hugs. It was the 1950’s.
It wasn’t long before I learned you had served in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army during World War II. You enlisted as soon as you could leave your civilian responsibilities after the war started. Although you didn’t talk much about those years to us as we were growing up, two of your favorite television shows were “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Combat.” Every week we would watch them together. “Hogan’s Heroes” brought you laughter regarding those years spent in Europe and “Combat” brought back the reality and horror of those same times. Because they were your favorites, at the time they were mine too, and to this day if I catch a rerun of either of those shows, I will watch it and remember those evenings spent connecting with you.
As I grew older, I also grew more curious about those years and would sometimes ask questions as we sat on the porch swing, watching and waiting for the rain to start or end so you could get back to your farm work. You often skirted those questions, but sometimes you would open up a little and talk about them, your comrades and your friends. I could tell your Army days were a part of you in one way or another. I remember a cigar box of foreign coins and tokens dated from the early 1900’s, memorabilia from Italy, France, Germany and England. I also recall in that same cigar box were various metals, badges and citations, one of which was a Purple Heart. One day I retrieved the box and went through it with you, asking you what each one was and how you got it. You talked about being in the Normandy Invasion, and the Battle of the Bulge. You talked about how you became a Sergeant; every time a Sergeant in your troop was killed or wounded and sent home, they would promote the next one in line right there on the battlefield. You talked about some of the men you had fought with and when I asked if any had died, you grimaced and said, “Lots of them.” When I asked how you got the Purple Heart you said you received it because a German land mine blew up near you, throwing pieces of shrapnel into your right arm and leg. You showed me the scars once, and I can still picture them in my mind, wondering who would have been my father if you had been hit in a different spot. One time, with the innocence and naivety of a young girl living in those times, I asked if you had ever killed anyone. You responded gruffly, “Yes,” and quickly changed the subject. There was something about the look on your face, sad and a little lonely, that kept me from asking more. Now I realize that whatever you had faced over there—you and all the men who have fought in American wars throughout the years—enabled me to have that innocence.
Sometimes you would talk about your paratrooper jumps. Your face would relax and you’d smile making me realize your favorite part of being in the service must have been the flying and jumping out of an airplane. When you told me the training you received prior to your first jump, I was amazed. They sent you up onto a small tower and you had to jump to the ground. Then they taught you how to don a parachute and pull the cord. That was it. You were then ready to jump out of an airplane. However, you enjoyed it so much that you became a pilot after you got out and would take us kids flying and even let us help “steer” the airplane. Because of my memories of those days, I added skydiving to my bucket list and did so several years ago, receiving more training for my one jump than you had for your many. I thought of you while I did it and for the first time could truly appreciate why you enjoyed it so much.
You were the best Father a child could have. As many families in those times, we didn’t have a lot but we were happy and felt loved by you and Mom. Just as your Army years shaped you into the man and Father I knew and adored, they helped shape your children into the adults we have become. You died in August 1983. After the funeral and all the family had gone home, I was going through some of your things and found your billfold. With teary eyes I went through it piece by piece, through the pictures of us kids, your grandkids and Mom, your driver’s license, a gas card, your social security card, pilot’s license, and five 100 dollar bills—one for each of your children, until I came to a piece of paper, old and yellowed with 40 years of age and with words written on it in your familiar handwriting. It was a man’s name and his address. The address was in England and the name had a military rank in front of it. After all these years, you still carried that piece of paper. I had never heard the name before, but it brought home to me just how much your Army service and the men you had served with had meant to you. Although we had attended numerous 82nd Airborne Division reunions and as long as I knew you, you were a member of the American Legion, that little scrap of paper made me realize that your service had always been a part of who you were, and still are to this day in the hearts and lives of your children.
Thank you, Dad, for the life you gave me and for helping me to become the person I am today.
I love you,
Terri Wheelock Hejduk recently retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Terre Haute, Indiana, as the Human Resource Manager. She spends most of her time with her grandkids and traveling. Terri resides in Highland, Illinois with her husband John.